By Doug Peterson
When it was announced in 2001 that the University of Illinois would lead the first efforts to sequence the pig genome, Animal Sciences Professor Lawrence Schook had a lab party to celebrate. His team then started kicking around ideas about what to name the nine female piglets that had been cloned specifically for the gene-sequencing project.
“The names were all Disney characters,” Schook recalls. “We had Tinker Bell, Jasmine, Tiana, Aurora, Belle, Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella and Olivia.”
Schook decided to take the first letter of all nine names to spell out “TJ Tabasco,” rechristening the pig from which the piglets were cloned. Her DNA would be mapped and then used by researchers around the world.
The International Swine Genome Sequencing Consortium, chaired by Schook, began mapping the genome of TJ Tabasco in 2003 and completed its work in 2012. Today, TJ’s genetic material continues to be used worldwide, helping scientists achieve breakthroughs in agricultural and biomedical research.
Although Schook and the University of Illinois led the pig genome project, it was a global effort that drew on resources from labs in Denmark, England, France, Japan, Korea and Scotland. But before the project even got off the ground, there was fierce competition over whose pig would be chosen.
“Illinois was going up against a French sequencing center, started by a Nobel Prize winner, as well as the Sanger Centre in England, again with Nobel Prize winners,” Schook says. “But we held our own. Trust me.”
Ultimately, the consortium selected a young female Duroc pig named Cindy who was born on the U of I’s South Farms on Jan. 11, 2001. Schook came up with the idea of cloning Cindy and renaming her TJ Tabasco. Illinois animal scientists Jonathan Beever, ’86 ACES, MS ’89 ACES, PHD ’96 ACES, and Matt Wheeler assisted in the cloning, as well as Chris Wright and Alvaro Hernandez, PHD ’01 ACES, at the University’s Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center.
Because of the genetic similarities between pigs and humans, TJ’s genome has been used in many types of biomedical research, including work on cystic fibrosis and xenotransplantation—the grafting or transplanting of organs, such as kidneys and hearts, between species. In this case, scientists hope to genetically alter pig organs to make them suitable for transplanting in humans, helping to address the shortage of transplant organs.
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